Owl baiting: Your thoughts

Every winter there are discussions that almost inevitable leads to heated arguments around the practice of owl baiting. Owl baiting is the practice of releasing tame rodents such as white mice for wild owls to catch. The practice is generally used by professional photographers to raise their odds of capturing the kill shot up close and personal, especially for rare northern owls such as Snowy, Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owl. Although owl baiting is most common amongst the professional photographer community, members of the public have also got in on the act.

This month I would like to see what your thoughts are on owl baiting. I have a simple survey question running on my blog asking whether you agree with owl baiting or not.

Beyond that I’d like to hear your thoughts on the topic in general. Here are some questions to get your juices flowing:

  • Do you think that owl baiting is the same thing as feeding song birds in your yards?
  • Is it ok to feed the winter owls who have moved from the North due to a lack of food?
  • Do you think that owl baiting habitualizes owls to people?
  • What about the claim that Northern owls are ‘tame/unafraid of people’ to begin with, so interacting with people is not a problem?
  • Would you think less of a fantastic kill shot of a Northern Hawk Owl swooping down if you knew the owl was baited into action?

Below are just a few blog entries, articles and discussion forums dealing with the topic to give you some more backgound on the topic/areas of contention. If you have any other links that you’d like to share or you just want to share your thoughts please click on the Comments link.


Remember to vote on my poll!


John said...

My main concern with owl baiting is doing it around roads, where owls would be more likely to get hit by a passing car. So I would say no to baiting, unless a photographer is careful not to compromise the bird's safety. I wouldn't venture to guess at whether habituation to humans is a real threat. It would seem to me that the main concerns would be (a) endangering the bird by encouraging it to hang around unsafe places or (b) causing it to forget or not learn how to hunt on its own. For photography it is best to err on the side of caution if the answers to those questions are not known.

On the other hand, I have no problem with researchers using bait to band or otherwise study owls. The value of the data outweighs any potential harm, in my opinion.

Larry Jordan said...

Hi Owlman,

I must agree with the photographers in the link you posted from the forum. If you are a good photographer and know your subject, you don't need to bait. You just need to know where your subject will be and what their habits are. Then have patience.

Just like in medicine, first do no harm. The risks are always weighed against the rewards. There are so many negatives to baiting (endangering the birds, unfit or diseased food) that it seems obvious to me that it's not worth the risk. I voted NO.

Thanks for bringing the subject to the attention of the general public.

While I'm here (since I don't have your email address), do you have a submission for IATB 94? I would love it if you would send me one for this weeks carney ;-)


Steve Berardi said...

I think it's important to keep nature natural.

It's wrong to bait owls because it introduces a piece of food to them that would not otherwise be available in their natural habitat/ecosystem. It's just as bad as feeding wild animals when you're camping, or throwing your apple cores and orange peels on the ground of hiking trails.

I think it's important to practice the "leave no trace" philosophy when you're out in the wilderness: leave only footprints, take only pictures.

I agree with Larry above, that if the photographer took the time to learn the habits of the owls, and had patience, he/she could come away with just as good a photograph. And, here's an example:


Willie Quinones said...

I agree with the two comments the gentlemen said above. I am bird enthusiast of feeder birds. I think the practice of feeding birds whether to attract them to feeders or filming them is a good thing but I don't think the sole motivation is to just filming them. The welfare of the animal is the most important.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Owlman,
I didn't even know about owl baiting until Minnesota's Great Gray Owl irruption of 2005. I was surprised to find out that people actually did that just to get a better picture.
My sister got some fabulous photos of the great grays that year and all we did was stand outside the car while I "hooted" at them--they would turn around and look at us every time. It took a little more time and patience, but it was really cool to experience owls just being owls without unnecessary human intervention.

Jochen said...

Has anyone ever discussed the potential impact of baiting on local rodent populations?
Seriously, the biological world around us is not only about the birds (although we all know they rule!). What would we say to Owl baiting if European Starlings had been introduced by a bird photographer trying to bait Coops or Sharpies?
So, I am wuite firm in my "NO". You just don't release any animals to the wild that don't belong there.

Bird Girl said...

I have a different perspective on the whole thing. My husband used to be a falconer and there are lots of people who freaked out about that. There are people who freak out about using an ipod to call a bird. I didn't know people used bait to get better owl pictures. But I'll tell you I use mealworms to get better bluebird pictures and I LOVE it! Let's face it...it has to be a hassle to bait an owl - I'm sure it can be done responsibly. And don't think just because someone is a trusted member of the birding community that they can always be trusted. I was just reading a book last night which described a former president of a large birding organization who found a sleeping saw-whet in a shrub - took it to his house (several blocks away)and placed it on his Christmas tree where it slept all day!!! He then let it go at dusk - HOLY CRAP! Now that is a crime - but baiting owls (though it sounds like a crime) I really believe all these kinds of things are subject to the integrity of the person. There are some bird lists that make you feel like a criminal if you want directions to see an owl for the purpose of photography. We have to keep a balance.
Well...that is just my 2cents ;-)
Don't mob me...please...I'm really very nice!

Owlman said...

Interesting thoughts so far. I'll definitely chime in at the end, but for now I want to stay impartial and let the discussion evolve. Bird Girl, no one is going to mob you on this blog and I appreciate differing opinions. In fact I was hoping that someone would have the guts to present the other side of the coin. Owls are a guarded topic in the birding community. I ran a poll at one time about giving out the location of an owl roost and the vast majority said that they wouldn't - so it doesn't surprise me that people didn't want to give you the location. Anyway, thanks for presenting a differing opinion it is much appreciated!

John, Larry, Steve, Willie, RuthieJ and Jochen I appreciate your comments and I will add my thoughts at the end. Interestingly, I generally go in with a pretty good understanding of my opinion and inevitable that understanding is challenged based on people's thought provoking comments.

Aluajala said...

Owls... owls are everywhere. They haunt me. The pics of owls I mean. Since last week when my hubbie showed me some pics of these crazy creatures I encounter them everywhere. LOL ) Owls are cool

Bird Girl said...

By the way...I forgot to tell you that the Hawk Owl picture is awesome - I hope one day to see that owl! Great shot!

BLRem said...

Someone in one of those blog links asked what the difference was between "baiting" birds by putting out seed and using rodents to lure owls. I don't agree with baiting but I do supply seed for the birds. While there is a whole host of ethical issues involved here and a few fuzzy grey lines as well, I stop short of making a "life and death" decision in order to satisfy a passion. I suppose we interfere with nature and affect its balance every time we set foot in the woods....and yet, we are ARE a part of nature, aren't we?

I agree with Larry Jordan, "first do no harm". I don't see the "harm" in feeding birds seed. I do see the harm in baiting them - from diseased mice, to stress, to death, to affecting population statistics, etc.

Thanks for providing a non-threatening forum, Owlman, where everyone can pose their viewpoint and we can hopefully learn tolerance from each other along the way.

Susan Gets Native said...

I LOVE that you opened this discussion, dude.

Being personally involved with birds of prey, I have strong feelings about it.

Owl baiting is a big mistake on too many fronts.
Just looking at it from the mouse's point of view: Pet store mice are not "winter hardy", and if they manage to escape the talons of the owl, they are then subjected to dying from exposure. (we can't do live prey testing during the winter, because our mice are domesticated)
If they are released in a warmer climate, they are likely to pass their inferior genes to the native mouse population, and their salmonella and everything else they may be carrying.

I don't think typical, wild owls are going to become incapable of hunting just because they are getting free handouts. But they aren't totally stupid...baiting will most assuredly keep them coming back for more.

We have messed things up spectacularly already...why alter the behavior of these wonderful birds (that can get along just fine without us) just for a nice photo?
They are moving South for food, yes. If they find it, they live. If they don't, they die. That's how it's SUPPOSED to be! What if an owl, who isn't the best hunter and wouldn't make it anyway, gets free food and passes on the "I don't know what I'm doing" gene? How will he or she feed their young, if they can't feed themselves without help?

And "using the photos to encourage conservation and education (from one of the links)" is a big load of malarkey. If you are a professional photographer and you can't get a good pic of an owl who is just SITTING there, it's time to hang up the camera.

It's been suggested to me by someone who is usually a smart guy, to release some white mice while RSHA are in the yard and it's just another form of "bird feeding". I have plenty of mice and other food running around the yard, and I don't need to throw out more to get good photos.
I think the photographers who rely on this are just lazy.

Owlman said...

Susan thanks for the input. Allow me to be the devil’s advocate real quick. You said that “They are moving South for food, yes. If they find it, they live. If they don't, they die. That's how it's SUPPOSED to be!” What role do rehab centers play in the lives if these owls? If a member of the public finds an emaciated owl on the side of the road and takes it to a rehab center where they feed it and release it, will it not pass on the “I don't know what I'm doing" gene?

I realize I am stretching the debate, but I’d like to get people’s thoughts on the gray areas out there. Your thoughts?

Trevor Hampel said...

The real challenge for the bird photographer is to get a brilliant photo using no artificial means of enticement whatsoever. It is far more satisfying that way. I must admit, however, that some of my best shots have been at our bird bath!

Tom Pirro said...

This is almost like debating relegion! I do not have big issue with people feeding these birds (and using a little good judgement), but not if it turns the scene into a carnival-like atmostsphere.

I'd never bring mice to a "staked out" bird. But, "lets just say" I happened to be driving down a country road and stumbled upon...a hawk owl...and just happened to have a half dozen mice in glove box(something I normally don't do, so the odds are long)...I'd toss the bird a few, unless I needed them for something else.

I always share trail mix with Gray Jays, when I hike in New Hampshire's White Mtns....I don't know if that is any better than feeding mice to Hawk Owl....they'll land in your hand, on your head and so forth. Heck they get pissed off if you hike on past don't stop and feed them. I suspect they remember how to find their own food when the hikers leave.

I would guess the Siskins, Redpolls and and Tree Sparrows will not forget to head north this spring and chances are a Hawk Owl will leave too.

Will it survive? Who knows, when they move outside there normal range one might think their odds aren't the best and the handouts might help out a bit. But, you have to ask the owl that, of course we have a good idea what the mouse's answer might be.

I did see the New Hampshire Hawk Owl a week back, on a nice quiet Monday. No crowds, no mice but it was right on the side of a very busy road, which detracted a bit from the expirence.

Susan Gets Native said...

Ewwww, you are trying to be stinky?

Rehab centers are attempting to reduce the human impact.
A full 80% of our birds are found in ditches or along roadsides, indicating collisions with cars. Some of our birds are found with bloodstreams full of pesticides. Plenty of them are brought in with BULLETS lodged in their chests. And a few are brought in because some unthinking human took them in as PETS and the birds are now imprinted and non-releasable.
Most of our emaciated birds have a underlying condition that led to the starvation and nine times out of ten, it was a human-made situation.
Sometimes, a creaky old bird will come in, and we can tell that they are very old and we make their last days as comfortable as possible.

And interestingly enough, we hardly EVER get wintering owls at RAPTOR (snowy, short-eared, long-eared, etc.)
In the three years I have been there, the most unusual owl we have received is Storm, our Barn Owl. (Found with wing caught in a barn gutter, yet another man-made obstacle to their well-being)

So there. : )~

Owlman said...

Susan the devil's advocate is never stinky ;-) I was hoping for a good response and got it - thanks!

Dean Eades said...

Nice Site


Owlman said...

BirdBoy said...
I feel it is not bad to bait owls and raptors. Many people have tons of bird feed outside their house during the winter time. These birds love the food, and eat it all winter long. But once spring and summer comes, they naturally go back to eating berries, and seeds. this is the same for owls and raptors. I have seen someone bait a kestrel while in Pennsylvania. Thirty minutes later i saw the same kestrel eating a mouse it caught. As long as the baiter keeps his mice clean it should be ok for the owl and raptors to eat. This is just my opinion.

February 26, 2009 5:56 PM

Montanagirl said...
I just discovered your blog and really like it. Owls are one of my passions as far as trying to get good photos. I have never baited them, however. I guess I didn't realize anyone did that. So far, I've just been in the right place at the right time, and very lucky. I'm strictly an amateur photographer, but have gotten some pretty good photos. I've been watching birds since about 2004 when my husband and I moved back to Montana from Alaska. If you would be at all interested in seeing some of my better "Owl" photos, I would post some of them on my blog in the next couple days. Thanks for having such a great and informative blog to visit.

February 27, 2009 9:35 AM

Sam Webster said...

As a professional photographer and owl baiter I can appreciate both sides of the baiting issue.

No doubt baiting has created a lot of animosity between both groups. My belief is that baiting done responsibly does not harm an owl, in fact it may actually save an owls life.

The owls I bait are in remote areas and are not being baited by any other photographers. I limit my baitig to 3-4 mice and quickly move on after getting my photographs. I also raise all my own mice from local stock. I have absolutely no evidence of habitualization to humans based on my 10 years working with birds of prey provided the baiting is done properly.

I have baited weak snowy and great grey owls that could not find food due to hard crusted snow as a result of ice storms. In several extreme cases owls that appeared close to death were feed daily not to obtain photographs but to try and save the birds.

Some may say this is interfering with nature. Perhaps, but how is this different from rescuing an injured bird on the roadside.

Baiting owls for banding, playing bird calls on ipods and using laser pointers to point out birds to others are behaviours many birders feel are acceptable yet are quick to judge a photographer who uses bait to bring in an owl.

I would much rather see an owl baited with live mice than one enticed in with a decoy mouse on the end of a fishing line. In this form of baiting there is no debate.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet if your poll asked if we approve of "owl feeding" you'd get a lot more positive feedback. Baiting just sounds bad.

This is definitely a little like debating religion. In order to be righteous birders we have to follow the "rules" as dictated by the high priests of birding. Once the birding community comes to an agreement then those rules are sacrosanct: "Don't play bird calls to attract birds!", "Don't tell anyone where you saw those whooping cranes!", "Don't touch that nest.", etc.

Oh...unless you're a credentialed scientist doing research of some sort. Then you can do what you like.

It's one of the reasons I get exasperated with group trips.

We put a lot of blame on humankind for being a scourge on the earth. Yes, human interference can be damaging. No argument there. But sometimes we help birds out. Birdfeeders. Nestboxes. Inadvertently providing food & shelter with our own homes and refuse. Rehab centers.

And we are animals too. Can't we occasionally interact with other creatures without feeling guilty? I think we are allowed that freedom to some extent, no?

I hope forums like this blog where people get to air out these issues is the best way for people to share their thoughts about the "rightness" of this or that practice. At the end of reading these comments I think anyone would be more aware of the pros and cons, the risks and responsibilities, and the motives involved.

I also hope the goal isn't to institute a new doctrine in the church of birding. ;-)

Owlman said...

I have to chime in at this stage and say that this discussion ROCKS! Every time I feel that my mind is made up, someone else chimes in with good food for thought. I honestly don't know whether I'll be able to address all the comments at the end - my mind is racing in so many directions. I try to make the poll questions as open ended as possible and I honestly never considered the baiting vs. feeding phraseology.

Anonymous you mention the rules of birding which is very appropriate as one of the NJ birding listserv members was recently rebuked (harshly by some) for revealing a roosting Long eared owl. It seems that owls are one of those birds that bring out heated debates amongst the birding community with many people feeling that they know what's best. Apparently owl roosts are only to be shared by a few elite members who know how to treat the owls with respect. BTW I dealt with this topic in a poll I did in – The Hoo in Taboo http://owlbox.blogspot.com/2008/03/hooo-in-taboo.html although I still feel pretty ambiguous and I have lots of questions about this topic. Having said that I follow the ‘rule’ of not revealing an owl’s location although I sometimes feel that this supreme secrecy adds to the frenzy when an owl is found by the ‘general’ public. If owls were considered more ‘ordinary’ wouldn’t there be less of a carnival atmosphere when one was found? Owl roosts are generally shared by birders who then share with other birders resulting in many people ultimately seeing the owls – doesn’t this lead to distribution of the owls? Does this mean that if you are in the ‘club’ you can see the owl, but if you’re just a general birder you can’t? What are the credentials for sharing an owl roost with another person? Yip, more questions and not directly related to the topic – my apologies.

Obviously I have a viewpoint on this and other birding related topics. Ultimately I am truly interested in seeing what the different viewpoints are and discussions like this one tend to open my mind to new ideas and ways of looking at the world. I'd love to hear from you and to see how you view this topic regardless of whether you see it as owl baiting or owl feeding.

k said...

Just tossing a monkey wrench while driving by.......

Why do members of the birding community harass photographers that bait owls (or for that matter, at times harass them just for being in possession of a camera) but leave fishermen alone? Fishing isn't exactly great from either perspective of the fish or the bait. I have never seen or heard of scorn being heaped on them like photographers receive. What about bluebirders that bait bluebirds and other insectivores? I've yet to hear a disparaging word tossed in their direction.

Why do we draw a line between rodents and worms/insects? Or is some life more sacred than other life? I'll be polite in saying that at the least there are some disconnects here.

This situation between birders and photographers is bad but at least photographers are just making images and not eating the owls.

While I'm on the subject of keeping perspective, do try to remember that a photographer may or may not be familiar with the ABA code of birding ethics. Even if they are there is no regulation forcing them to abide by it. That sounds bad doesn't it? But when birders attack photographers in the field or online they are failing to follow the code themselves.

2(c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

I hope I have offered some food for thought.

Jerry said...

I have seen and also been a part of Baiting Owls. There have been many good points made for both sides. Are bird feeders not more dangerous to song birds than feeding a mouse to an Owl. I would probably be right to assume that a lot birds are taken off of feeders by Cats,Sharpies or other Raptors. I have feeder in my back yard which has become the local hang-out for a few cats and a Coopers Hawk. The feeders draw the birds out of their natural cover and exposing them to different predetors. If you ask me this causes far more harm to the bird population than feeding a few mice to an Owl.It just happens that Owls are meat eaters. If say for arguments sake that Owls ate oranges would it be such a big deal probably not.I have seen many unscrupulous people on both side of birding (Photographers and Birders)Another question. How many people on both sides of this discussion have fished? Probably a few. Just a few things for people to chew on. Great topic. Love the Blog. Thanks for allowing me a chance to voice my opinion.


Owlman said...


Excellent points. I tend to see gray areas in this debate, although I would be wary to feed an owl myself. Having said that I agree with your points on 'songbird' feeders and I have a few in my own garden. I think we should judge each situation on its own merit. I don't think all owls are the same and some owl species are more easily disturbed than others. I would say that you should try to minimize your disruption of any owl, while enjoying the view!

Thanks for stopping in and I'm glad you enjoy the blog.


Anonymous said...

I am 48 years old and have only seen a rehabilitated great horned that brought to our school to share with studends. Recently imoved just across town and have seen more than a dozen great horned owls in just a few weeks time!!! I am so intrigued by these beautiful birds and I tell anyone who will listen which trees they are roosting in and will point them out in mid day. I use downloaded owl call from my phone to get them to really hoot at night. I use high powered spotting scopes and night vision binoculars to get as close as possible. I stumbled upon this blog because I want to bait them with a mouse so I can see them in action/flight. How is this done? Tie the rodent to fishing line? Put in a box? I'm intrigued by these creatures